The gun control debate in the US can be usefully understood through the lens of “acceptable costs,” defined as those costs which are worth paying in exchange for a certain way of life or for certain ideological reasons.
In 2013, motor vehicle deaths totaled 33,804 while all firearm related deaths came in at 33,636. These are pretty much equivalent, yet gun control is a huge issue while motor vehicle restrictions are not. This is because there is a broad consensus in the US that deaths due to automobiles and trucks are an acceptable cost, something that is simply part of the landscape of our way of life. There is a small constituency of citizens that oppose the automobile, but they are primarily driven by concerns for the environment or for urban renewal.
On the other hand, there is a clear split between three separate constituencies on the acceptability of gun-related deaths. The first constituency, composed of hunters and rural people who use guns to acquire food, is rarely heard from on the national scene and is often subsumed by the second, NRA-ideological constituency. This first group is theoretically amenable to some restrictions that leave (e.g.) hunting rifles alone. But the ideological group that speaks in their place sees guns the same way that everyone sees cars–any accidents or deaths are an acceptable cost to (1) maintaining an arsenal to fight a future totalitarian government or (2) maintain general constitutional rights, starting with the second amendment. Relenting on the second is seen as the start of a slippery slope to fascism, communism, or whatever -ism is opposed to the American way of life.
The third constituency consists of gun control advocates and those who do not see gun-related deaths as an acceptable cost for a modern, civilized nation. They see no purpose for guns and therefore cannot justify any accidental or purposeful gun deaths. They point out that other developed nations have strict gun control laws and have far fewer gun related deaths. Gun deaths are pure waste, not an ideologically or materially justified cost.
Automobile culture is so hegemonic that virtually no one questions it. We all need to drive somewhere, right? But gun culture is increasingly split between a group who sees guns as an ideological necessity and one that sees them as a dangerous, useless affectation that kills far too many. The only group that has reason to actually use the guns in day-to-day life is not heard from.
This is why, for roughly equivalent annual fatalities, a shooting where 9 people are killed makes national headlines while a 10 car pile up that kills 9 does not. No one really cares about the latter, except those directly affected, while the former is a national tragedy.
Update: Jonathan Korman writes on Twitter:
This sparks a couple more ideas in my head. First, you don’t see an “acceptable costs” argument being made on the national level, or at least very rarely. That’s because there’s actually a fourth group that I didn’t mention above, consisting of people who have no strong feelings on gun control or the second amendment, but who can definitely be moved to action by media coverage of mass shootings.
The NRA, meanwhile, is a lobbying and PR group that primarily represents interior US and southern citizens’ political interests as well as gun and ammo manufacturer’s interests in a media environment that is heavily concentrated along the urban centers of the northeast and west coast. These urban corridors are the home base of the gun-control groups, which is why NRA spokespersons rarely go to the media with “acceptable costs of freedom.” They know the media won’t like it, and they know that the uncommitted members of the population will see an argument for theoretical rights juxtaposed with pictures of dead children and will make the obvious choice. This is why NRA spokespersons cannot make the claim–as soon as that becomes their standard, they will scare off most of the uncommitted population.
Remember, the NRA is the PR arm of US gun interests–both citizen and corporate–and it faces a hostile media environment and a very divided national political environment. Believe it or not, it treads lightly.
Though its filters appear to get weaker and weaker every year. Since Harlon Carter, its message has increasingly embraced the paranoid, Charles Bronson-in-Death Wish world in which the only thing that can stop criminals and terrorists and overreaching government are good people carrying guns. But going full-tilt into “price of freedom” arguments on the national stage is still taboo. Instead, you find these arguments made by random pro-gun advocates on forums, on social media, talk radio, and sometimes at the local government level. The argument is used for internal propaganda, to reinforce the beliefs of those who already believe when they are faced with mass shootings and high body counts. “Remember, this is all worth it for the greater good” only works on those who share a common conception of how having more guns secures the greater good. It sounds callous and immoral to those who do not, and who see gun deaths as pure tragedy in the service of no cause whatsoever.
Second, the above dynamic accounts for why conspiracy theories about staged mass shootings persist within pro-gun advocacy circles. They’re roughly aware of how guns stack up to other causes of death, they know that the media is generally hostile to them and to gun rights, they see that shootings get way more publicity than (e.g.) fatal car accidents, and they perceive the government as an enemy bent on slowly taking away their ability to defend themselves. At the same time, they’re often surrounded by like-minded people who agree with them either online or in their communities. Thus, fringe theories claim that mass shootings are staged, while more “mainstream” theories claim that shootings are over-hyped as part of a larger agenda to disarm the populace. And at least on the latter, they are correct about the hype and may be correct about the larger systemic effects on gun rights, even though there is no actual conspiracy involved.